Reginald Mobley aims to make the world of early music more accessible

Reginald Mobley ranks among this country’s finest countertenors, with an active, top-level career to match. But he also is an activist who doesn’t hesitate to make his voice heard about inclusion, especially when it comes to early music.

As a Black American, still a rare presence in the world of early music, he believes he has something unique to say about a scene that too often has been completely unknown to certain groups or has been seen as inaccessible to them.

“Black kids growing up when I grew up thought that not just early music but classical music at all was something that wasn’t for us to be involved in, that we weren’t allowed," he said. “So it’s matter of not just unlocking the gate, but also opening the gate and inviting people in.”

It will be Mobley the consummate artist whom audiences will experience Dec. 16-19, when the countertenor makes his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus as one of four soloists in presentations of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio masterpiece, Messiah. Nicholas McGegan conducts the orchestra and chorus, which was prepared by Duain Wolfe.

“It’s a huge milestone,” Mobley said from his home in Boston. “I love Chicago and the symphony is obviously one of the top orchestras out there. It’s not only a huge concert for me, but it’s also a huge honor that the symphony would take a chance on a little Black boy from Gainesville, Fla.”

Mobley happens to share a birthday with Sir Georg Solti, the CSO’s legendary music director from 1969 through 1991. When the singer discovered that connection in college, he made a point of listening to CSO  recordings with Solti, repeatedly playing their classic takes on Verdi’s Requiem and J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

“I fell in love with the sound and fell in love with the story and history of this organization," he said. "To finally have a chance to work with them, it’s stunning. It’s amazing.”

Mobley typically performs 11-17 performances of Messiah each December, and he was on track for that many this season. But illness forced him to cancel his usual appearances in the work with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society at the end of November, and his subsequent appearance in Vienna was canceled because of tightened coronavirus restrictions. That in turn led him to pull out of three performances in France in early December.

But all is not lost. Besides his four performances of the oratorio with the CSO, he also will appear Dec. 22-23 as a soloist in the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “It’s something I look forward to,” he said of the Messiah. “It’s something I’ve done a lot.”

The Florida native originally intended to major in art after he graduated from a magnet high school dedicated to drafting and architecture. But in his senior year, he fell in love with singing after he was talked into joining a choir (his main musical pursuit that point had been the trumpet). He enrolled at the last minute at what is now Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala. Though he declared a trumpet performance major, he decide to study voice instead.

At first, he was singing as a tenor, and he was still focused on that register when he transferred to the University of Florida, back in his hometown of Gainesville. He joined a collegiate barbershop quartet, and the group often practiced in a university commons area. One day, Mobley’s voice teacher, Jean-Ronald LaFond, happened to walk by and heard him practicing the high part for the group, which was essentially in the alto register.

LaFond brought the young singer back his office and had Mobley sing a few scales in the upper octave where he had been singing with the quartet. The teacher then told Mobley that he was a “naturally gifted” countertenor. “I, of course, was really surprised, and said, ‘That’s amazing, but what’s a countertenor?’ ” Mobley recalled. But with the help of LaFond, he made the switch, studying the distinctive falsetto technique required for that vocal type. “Since then, I’ve only worked as a countertenor, whether it be classical, jazz, gospel or musical theater. It actually gives me the ability to make the sound that I hear and I feel that I should.”

Mobley progressed steadily in the classical world after he finished his training, but his career really took off in 2015 when he met Sir John Eliot Gardiner during a master class in Boston. The next summer, the singer joined the famed early-music conductor as a soloist on a 16-concert tour of the St. Matthew Passion with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. “Once you sing for John Eliot, you can pretty much sing for anyone at the point,” Mobley said. “And everything just went from there.”

But as noted earlier, Mobley is much more than just a performing artist. In March 2020, he became the first-ever programming consultant for the Handel and Haydn Society, which presents historically informed concerts featuring its orchestra and choir. He works to diversify and enrich the group’s repertoire and seeks to promote the values of inclusion and equality to other parts of the organization, from the board to the audience. The job evolved from Mobley’s earlier annual projects with the group, beginning with organizing and directing a program in 2015 along with with the Museum of African American History in Boston. With that appearance, he became the first Black to lead the venerable society, which celebrated its bicentennial that year.

“David Snead, who is the president and chief executive officer of H + H, really took to my goal of diversifying repertoire and really showing the people of Boston how people of color and people of various, diverse groups — not just color but gender and sexuality — have always been a part of the arts, music and culture.”

Mobley will soon add a similar but more focused post, visiting artist for diversity outreach, with Apollo’s Fire, the acclaimed early-music group based in Cleveland. In that capacity, he will target elementary-school students. “The idea is to start introducing early music and period instruments to young musicians who don’t yet know that this world exists, and there is something extremely freeing about early music," he said. "Honestly, if I had have known about it when I was younger, it would have just been a no-brainer.”